Previously: The Final Voyage Of The Bluebelle.
This week’s Creepy Wikipedia subject is more heartwarming than spooky — although I’d argue that it’s still spooky-adjacent, hence its inclusion here at the internet campfire of TGIMM: For many years, the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island has counted among its residents a cat who predicts death. Or at least, that’s what it seems like; he perhaps isn’t predicting death so much as he is simply detecting signs that a resident of the nursing home is nearing their final moments — signs which are more difficult for humans to catch. But he’s not viewed as scary, or as an angel of death; he’s viewed as comforting. In fact, it’s his job to be comforting. He’s a therapy cat. His name is Oscar.
Oscar was born in 2005. He’s fluffy — no shorthaired cat, this one — and mostly white, with pronounced tabby patches on his head, back, and tail. One of six kittens adopted by Steere House that year, he was reportedly somewhat fearful at first and only seldom seen by those working or living at the nursing home. “Oscar was initially sort of a very scared cat,” Dr. David M. Dosa, who would later become responsible for Oscar’s time in the spotlight, told Crossroads Hospice in 2016. “He wouldn’t really like to come out. He would keep to himself. Often times you’d find him in the supply closet or under a bed somewhere.” Indeed, Oscar still doesn’t really like people all that much — unless, that is, he’s working his magic.
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The cat makes regular rounds, you see. He wanders in and out of the rooms housing the 41 beds that make up Steere House’s Alzheimer’s and dementia care unit, checking in on the residents as he goes. He might hop up on a bed or two, or sniff the air — but it’s only when Oscar decides to stay on one of the beds, curling up with the person occupying it and purring while nuzzling them, that the nurses and other carers pick up the phone.
When this happens, family members and loved ones are called. They arrive, and the assemble in the room. They say their goodbyes. And Oscar stays with them all the while — typically a few hours — until the resident peacefully passes.
Then he quietly climbs down from the bed and returns to his favorite resting spot — the desk in the doctor’s charting area — until he is needed again.
The first few times Oscar settled down next to a resident shortly before they passed, employees of Steere House didn’t think much of it. After he’d done it about 20 times, they started to see the pattern. Now, they know exactly what it means when Oscar stays for a lengthy visit. By 2007, he’d correctly predicted the death of a resident roughly 25 times. By 2010, the estimate was around 50. And by 2015, it was thought that he’d helped more than 100 souls on their way as they shuffled off their mortal coils.
Oscar, of course, probably isn’t psychic or anything like that (although yes, some do believe that animals have a greater sensitivity to the paranormal than humans do). It’s more likely that he’s picking up on some of the mechanics of death that humans aren’t equipped to sense. Numerous experts — both doctors who tend to humans and doctors who know cats — told CBS News in 2007 that they suspected Oscar’s sense of smell was key: The theory is that the human body releases certain chemicals or odors when near death that animals with particularly attuned senses of smell — including cats like Oscar — can sniff out; when Oscar smells these possible odors, therefore, he may know that death is imminent.
It may also be a combination of factors, however. For instance, Oscar may additionally sense that the person on the bed is unusually still; as one expert put it to CBS News, “It may not be smell or sounds, but just the lack of movement.” And, of course, there’s the possibility that part of it is learned behavior, as well: Dr. Joan Teno, who also ascribes to the scent theory, posited that the cat could be “following the patterning behavior of the staff.” She noted, “This is an excellent nursing home. If a dying person is alone, the staff will actually go in so the patient is not alone. They will hold a vigil.” Oscar, she offers, may have witnessed this pattern multiple times and have learned to mimic it.
Then again, all we have are theories. Nothing has been definitively proven, or disproven.
All we know is that Oscar seems to know when someone is about to die — and that he seems to want to do what he can to help.
And he does seem to help — both the residents, and their loved ones. Said the family of one person Oscar helped send off to the Great Beyond, “It’s not that we trusted the cat more than the nurse. Not exactly. It was… well, there was just something about Oscar. He seemed so convinced of what he was doing. He was so clear in his intention and his dedication.”
Oscar is getting up there in years now; as of this writing, he’s about 16, which is considered elderly for cats. But although he might spend a little more time napping these days than he used to, he’s still hard at work, and a beloved fixture of Steere House.
And even when Oscar himself is gone, there will undoubtedly be plenty of folks who will be glad to see him again waiting for him on the other side of the rainbow bridge.
“A Day In The Life Of Oscar The Cat” by David M. Dosa. This 2007 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine is what launched Oscar into the public eye. Written by Dr. David M. Dosa (referenced up top), it’s not a long piece; nor is it scholarly in style. Instead, the essay, which is about a page and a half long, is written with warmth and compassion — and it does, in fact, capture a day in the life of Oscar the cat, describing in kindhearted detail exactly what happens when Oscar choses to curl up next to someone. No wonder the furry feline stole the world’s heart.
Oscar’s page at the Steere House website. There’s a cute little page dedicated to Oscar at Steere House’s own website; it’s got some basic info about him, links to news articles, and some photos, among other things. In some ways, he’s become the facility’s mascot over the more than a decade a half he’s been in residence. It’s adorable.
“Cat’s ‘Sixth Sense’ Predicting Death?” at CBS News. Looking for theories about how and why Oscar might be doing what he’s doing? This is the CBS News piece I mentioned above that has them all. Again, they’re just theories — but they’re all from folks who really know what they’re talking about, and many of them are in agreement with each other, so they’re likely onto something. The piece is dated 2007, for the curious.
Making The Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift Of An Ordinary Cat by David M. Dosa, MD. In 2010, Dosa published a full book about Oscar and his experiences working with him. From the discovery that the cat seemed to be displaying some pretty remarkable behavior to individual cases in which Oscar lent a paw, the book covers both Oscar’s story and, perhaps more importantly, what we can learn from him.
The thing about Oscar — and the thing that the book underlines the most, as a 2013 review of it highlights — is that he represents a certain philosophy when it comes to “the nature of personhood and the practice of modern medicine.” What is sometimes lost in today’s landscape is the fact that medicine is, at its heart, care — and, as the review concludes: “The simple example of a cat lying lovingly at a dying person’s side calls health care practitioners back to the sacred role of being a compassionate presence.”
Making The Rounds With Oscar is published by Hatchette Books and available at a wide variety of retailers. You can also check your library to see if they have a copy.
Oscar The Cat on YouTube. A short video produced for the Making The Rounds With Oscar publicity campaign. It features footage of Oscar (he’s so cute, y’all — I mean, I realize I am a cat person and therefore biased, but he’s adorable anyway), and also a brief interview with Dosa about Oscar.
Doctor Sleep (2013) by Stephen King and Doctor Sleep (2019), dir. Mike Flanagan. In both the 2013 Stephen King novel Doctor Sleep and its 2019 film adaptation written and directed by Mike Flanagan, there’s a cat quite similar to Oscar who lives at the hospice where the now-adult Dan Torrance — known in his childhood as Danny, during which time he spent one horrifying winter at the Overlook Hotel as his father fell prey to both figurative and literal ghosts — works. King’s fictional cat is named Azzie or Azzy, and like Oscar, she tends to know when the hospice’s residents’ times have come. Azzie’s abilities combined with Dan’s own allow the pair of them to help those who are about to pass do so peacefully.
Her name is short for Azrael — the name by which, in some religions, the Angel of Death goes.
For what it’s worth, Doctor Sleep is one of the rare instances where I actually prefer the movie to the book. There’s a lot I like about King, but he also has a bunch of habits that really bug me. Flanagan’s adaptation fixes a lot of the things that I often find problematic about King’s writing — and also, because the film is canonical with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 big screen adaptation of The Shining, it has an enormously satisfying final act. I won’t get too specific here for fear of spoilers, but know that there’s a key detail about the state of the hotel at the end of The Shining that varies between the book and the film — and it makes all the difference here.
Stephen King Q&A at Entertainment Weekly. Fun fact: Reading about Oscar is what inspired King to write Doctor Sleep in the first place. Said the writer to Entertainment Weekly in 2013, “Probably five years ago, I saw this piece on one of those morning news shows about a pet cat at a hospice, and according to this story, the cat knew before anybody else when somebody was going to die. The cat would go into the room, curl up on the bed, and the people never seemed to mind. Then those people died.” Continued King, “I thought to myself, ‘I want to write a story about that.’ And then I made the connection with Danny Torrance as an adult, working in a hospice. I thought: ‘That’s it. I’m gonna write this book.’”
He added, when asked whether the cat was the “cat-alyst” for the book, “The cat had to be there. It always takes two things for me to get going. It’s like the cat was the transmission and Danny was the motor.”
It’s a fun interview; read it in full here.
“As Animal-Assisted Therapy Thrives, Enter The Cats” by Jennifer A. Kingson. It’s long been known that animals can help people who are ill or struggling a ton — but the vast majority of research on the topic has been with regards to dogs. In recent years, though, there’s been an increased look at cats and other animals and how they can benefit people in treatment for everything from cancer to depression. Although this 2018 New York Times article doesn’t mention Oscar specifically, it does take a look at the general landscape — and what’s rapidly been emerging is that animals of all kinds are great therapy assistants.
“Classic Cases Revisited: Oscar The Cat And Predicting Death” in the Journal of the Intensive Care Society. This relatively short piece from 2016 examines the importance of uncertainty — or, more precisely, the importance of needing to acknowledge uncertainty in how medical care providers approach death with patients and their loved ones — using Oscar as a jumping-off point. Ultimately, the point is that, as the piece puts it, “the problem with statistics, no matter how good it is, is that it applies to populations and not individuals” — and when you’re a health care provider talking to a patient or their family and loved ones, you’re talking to people, not numbers. Again: There are numerous lessons to be learned from Oscar the therapy cat.
The Order Of The Good Death website. While we’re on the subject, here’s your reminder that death doesn’t have to necessarily be a bad or negative thing; it’s just often painted that way, despite the fact that death is purely a fact of life. The Order Of The Good Death is doing some good work in the death positive movement; head on over to their website if you’re interested in exploring what it’s all about.
“Oscar” by Tacocat. Seattle-based indie punk rock outfit Tacocat released an EP in 2011 called Woman’s Day which included among its four tracks a song about Oscar. Somewhat curiously, it alternates between viewing Oscar compassionately and as a malevolent force; the lyrics repeatedly refer to him as a “psychic death cat,” and note at one point that he “won’t let you die alone” while later stating that he “casts his curse or his kitty cat hex.” I think Oscar’s much more benign than that, but, well, what can you do. You can listen to the song here, and to the full EP here.
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[Photo via HyperionBooksVideo/YouTube]